Nate Dunlevy looks at what the firing of Jim Caldwell means for the future of the Colts.
If Hank Baskett had stayed down, Jim Caldwell would still have a job today.
On Tuesday, Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson caught everyone off-guard with the shocking, but welcome news that Jim Caldwell would not be retained as head coach of the Colts. No matter how right that decision was, I can’t get over the fact that if everything else but the onside kick had played out the same, Indy would have won the Super Bowl, and firing Caldwell would have been unthinkable.
Of course, had Caldwell not tried to run the ball three times to end the half that night, he might still have a job too.
And that’s what made this decision a difficult, but necessary one. Many things outside of Caldwell’s control cost him his job. It wasn’t his fault that Peyton Manning got hurt. I don’t think that even a great coach would have won more than four games with Collins/Painter/Orlovsky this year. The Colts were too horrible at quarterback to win games in the modern NFL. But there were plenty of things within Caldwell’s control, and that’s where he failed.
He failed to grasp aggression. He failed to adapt to the reality of how bad his quarterbacks were. He failed to grasp the game that is media relations.
Caldwell will be remembered for his timeout against the Jets (which I still defend). He’ll be remember for his unblinking, stoic sideline demeanor. He’ll be remembered as never having met a punt he didn’t like.
But if Baskett had stayed down, he’d be wearing a ring right now.
The moves this past week were not about accountability. They weren’t retribution for one bad season. They were about change in direction. Change is hard. I think Irsay wants to hang on to the past as much as fans do. It seems to be dawning on him that the past can’t be corralled so easily. When it’s time to move on, the only smart option is to face the future with courage and resolve. The old direction was a good one. But without Peyton Manning to make it work it wasn’t sustainable.
It couldn’t have been an easy decision for Jim Irsay to part ways with Caldwell. It’s clear now, that he is in fact willing to make the hard choices necessary to move the franchise forward. The dismissal of Caldwell gives fans a reason to hope that perhaps things will get better. The doomsday scenario of a Manning/Luck combination in Indianapolis that will lead to five plus years of irrelevance seems just sliver more unlikely now. The revelation that Grigson has not even spoken to Manning was jarring. The fact is that if the Colts thought it was likely that Manning would be healthy next year, they would be handling things very differently. Irsay’s claims about being committed to Manning ‘if he’s healthy’ are true. But the Colts clearly don’t believe he’s healthy.
I don’t believe the Colts will have Peyton Manning to make it work anymore. I never thought it likely that the Colts would work out a friendly renegotiation of Manning’s deal, and events of the last 24 hours make it more clear than ever that the schism between Manning and the team is real. He went from having more juice than anyone in the organization to not meriting a call back from the GM. Peyton Manning had no voice in this decision, and you have to wonder if he has any place in the organization any more.
Change is hard, but Caldwell was not the right coach to start the Andrew Luck era. The worst thing a team can do is have a lame duck coach with a young quarterback. Consider Blaine Gabbert of the Jaguars. He spent his rookie year under one system and now will be switching systems, all but wasting year one. It’s great that Wayne Weaver wanted another year of Del Rio, but he slowed the development of his quarterback in the process. Think about Alex Smith and his 7 coordinators in his career. Perhaps many of his struggles were simply due to the fact that he never stayed in one set system for enough time to master it.
The bad news for Colts fans is that there are not many good candidates out there. Whoever the next coach of the Colts is, he won’t be a big name. Maybe they’ll land the coaching version of Grigson, someone young and unknown who can grow into the job. Maybe they’ll land a retread destined to get fired in three years.
Either way, it won’t be Caldwell.
The future of the Colts organization is brighter today than it was yesterday. 2012 is going to be a terrible season no matter what. There’s no scenario that ends better than 8 wins. The team will have less talent than it did in 2011. Even a healthy Peyton Manning would not be enough to overcome the roster bloodletting that is going to begin soon. The Colts weren’t in a position to ‘bring the old gang back’. It’s just not realistic cap-wise. By making the hard choices now, however, the Colts are starting the hard road back that much sooner. 2012 is lost, but 2013 and beyond may well be secured. Change is hard, but when it’s embraced the new normal can be a good destination. It will never be as good as the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be great.